Religious leaders rally to fight budget cuts

BY JASON GRANGER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Religious leaders from the St. Louis area met Monday, March 23 to challenge Missouri lawmakers to find a better way to balance the state budget rather than slash health care rolls.

Missouri is one of many states that face a major budget deficit for the coming year. The budget passed by the Missouri House of Representatives includes major cuts to Governor Jay Nixon’s budget proposal, which would have utilized federal economic stimulus funding to boost social services provided by the state.

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At a press conference held at the First Baptist Church in Kirkwood last week, the religious leaders expressed outrage at the Missouri House Budget Committee’s proposed budget, which cut more than $300 million for health care from the governor’s proposed budget. The House of Representatives passed the budget later in the week. The budget process now proceeds to the Missouri Senate.

The proposed cuts would affect the departments of social services, mental health, and health and senior services, impacting nearly 70,000 Missourians, according to the group of faith leaders.

Rabbi Jim Bennett, of Congregation Shaare-Emeth, said the time has come to act not just out of political expediency, but out of a moral obligation. “My faith calls on me, as I believe all faiths call on us, to help one another,” he said. “Now the times have called on us all to realize there are needy.”

With the economy still trending downward, Bennett said more and more people are going to need help in the coming months, adding to the urgency of the group’s work. Bennett added that the work is just beginning, and the group hopes to add more religious leaders to the fold to make their point more clearly. “I have decided it’s time for me to stand up and make my voice heard,” he said.

Rev. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, said it is impossible to ignore the needs of the people, including those of the respective synagogues, churches and mosques. “The people who come to worship in our spaces need our help,” he said. “There’s not a religion among us who believes we shouldn’t help others among us. Part of the problem is the people who’re elected are not looking for visionary ways to lead our state forward.”

Greenhaw added that there is more than one way to balance the budget and to do so on the backs of the poor would be “scandalous.”

Rev. James Morris, pastor at Lane Tabernacle and state representative for the 58th district, said he is also outraged that Missouri would turn down money from the federal stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama because there are “strings attached.”

“Have they heard the woes of food pantries running out of food,” he asked. “If we are going to turn our state around, we must open up the economic streams from Washington.”

Morris said this is no longer an issue affecting the poor or those in rural or urban areas, but an issue that touches all Missourians.

“This issue is affecting everyone,” he said. “We have a moral obligation as a state to take care of each other.”

Added Greenhaw, “It’s no longer the other guy, it’s every guy.”

Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation and the organization Missouri Health Care for All, echoed the statements of the other religious leaders, and added there are lessons to be learned from other areas of the country. “We’re learning from other states, like Massachusetts, what will work in Missouri,” she said. “The will of the people, I think, is to see everybody have access to affordable, quality healthcare.”

Talve said she would like to see health care benefits extended to all Missourians, and indeed Americans, and said some concerns surrounding universal healthcare are unfounded. “Universal health does not mean Canada in America,” she said.

Talve, along with Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth and Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, were among a group of faith leaders who met earlier with Rep. Allen Icet (R-Wildwood), chairman of the House Budget Committee. Talve also helped organize a community forum with more than 100 people in Kirkwood to express concerns with Rep. Rick Stream (R-Kirkwood), the vice chair of the House Budget Committee.

Rabbi Bennett said he understands the group has a long road ahead, as they try to convince legislators to balance the budget in some other way. However, he said there is great merit in the work they are doing, and they must continue to move forward.

“Candidly, I don’t think it’s going well with results, but it’s going very well in potential,” he said. “We must continue to gather an ever larger group of voices.”

Bennett stressed that he and his fellow religious leaders are not trying to turn into politicians, but rather be another voice for the citizens of Missouri. “I don’t think it’s our job to do the job of the government,” he said. “But it is our job to remind them of their job, which is to care for the people of this state.”